During these dark days of winter, across the Jewish world, our lectionary carries us through Exodus, the second book in the Torah. This is deeply fitting, because when light is in short supply — both literally and metaphorically — the story of our liberation from Egyptian bondage provides hope and inspiration. The memory of our past deliverance can serve as a template for current and future resistance to oppression and injustice. And as 2018 opens, our nation is in dire need of such a course correction. Over the past year, our president and his administration have curtailed civil liberties, indulged in racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia, gutted environmental protections, war-mongered, cut health care, and exacerbated the already grotesque abyss between rich and poor with a budget and tax bill that constitute a massive transfer of wealth to the one percent, funded through a large increase in the national debt.
Strikingly, the first steps in the Torah’s narrative of liberation are all taken by women. The story begins with Shifra and Puah, midwives to the Hebrews, who perform the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refusing to follow Pharaoh’s edict to kill all male children born to Israelite women. A few verses later, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, defies Pharaoh by hiding her son and sending him down the Nile in a basket — where he is rescued and then raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter, who our Rabbis name Batya, “daughter of God.” And finally, Moses’ sister, Miriam, appears to Batya and offers to secure a wet nurse, who just happens to be Moses’ own mother.
What do we learn from these heroic women? Writing in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Susan Niditch notes: “The presence of these five women — who collaborate with each other across ethnic, class, and religious lines — is immensely significant. Deeply wise in fundamental, life-sustaining ways, these women understand instinctively that Pharaoh should be disobeyed; and, with initiative, they act on this knowledge. Ultimately, these women’s defiance demeans the male tyrant. Thus, from these women filled with a power rooted in moral reason, an ethical concern for life, and the capacity to empathize, we learn a valuable lesson in political ethics: the very weakest in society can contribute to liberation by judiciously engaging in acts of civil disobedience.”
“Ultimately, these women’s defiance demeans the male tyrant.” Dr. Niditch’s insight here is exceptionally timely. Because amidst the wreckage of 2017, we also find sparks of redemption, ignited largely through the work of courageous women. The year began with the Women’s March in Washington and across our nation, and ended with the #metoo movement. Now, more than ever, we need the voices of strong women to disrupt the status quo and bring justice to a culture seething in vulgarity, bigotry and inequity. And we men should welcome their leadership and join with them to create a better state, nation and world — much as our ancestors did millennia ago.
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Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.